SWORD, SANDAL OR ADVENTURE?
The collection of films that fall into the PEPLUM or SWORD AND SANDAL genre, as produced in Italy at the famous Cinecitta studios are for many an acquired taste, during the late 1960’s many of these movies found their way into British cinemas as a B feature or a support act if you will for the main film that was on the programme. Consequently, many of these Greek, Roman and Epic orientated movies were edited and edited harshly, in fact many being cut to the degree where the storyline and the continuity of the films were affected dramatically. Several the movies were produced as either spin offs or on the back of the success of the more popular Hollywood biblically slanted films such as THE ROBE and BEN HUR, plus taking their inspiration from films such as SPARTACUS. Of course, the budgets in Italy were not as big as Hollywood studios so this was reflected in the finished products. The Peplum threw up many variations of stories about characters such as Hercules, Goliath and others, at times the genre crossing over into other areas such as sci-fi and horror, which although rather odd always had to them a high level of entertainment value and were popular with audiences initially in Europe then outside of the continent. Film makers in Italy such as Sergio Corbucci cut his directorial teeth on creating sword and sandal yarns for the cinema and of course went onto be leading figures within the Italian Western genre and beyond, many directors, producers, screenwriters and actors that enjoyed success on Peplums, would also become stalwarts within other genres that were later created at Cinecitta. Although referred to as a SWORD AND SANDAL adventure, URSUS AND THE TARTAR PRINCESS or URSUS E LA RAGAZZA TARTARA-aka-TARTAR INVASION was not strictly a film that I would personally call a Peplum, because it was set in the 16000’s, at the time of the Polish/Tartar wars which was hundreds of years after the Romans and the Greeks. The film was a French/Italian co-production and starred Italian actor Ettore Manni and in the female lead Yoko Tani. The movies only real connection with the SWORD AND SANDAL genre was the name of URSUS in its title. The movie was for me somewhat disjointed and confusing at certain points, but this is probably due to the unsympathetic editing on the version I was seeing. Tartars from Crimea, attack Christians in Poland and in one of these attacks the Tartars capture the son of Ursus and take him to the Crimea where he is uncastrated.
Prince Stefan played by Ettore Manni is sent with a handful of soldiers to spy upon the Tartars, he is accompanied by Ursus who is anxious to bring his son back home. It is not long before Prince Stefan and his men are captured by Tartars who are led by Sulaiman (Tom Felleghy). But Sulaiman’s daughter Princess Ila (Yoko Tani) falls in love with Stefan and because of this Sulaiman spares Stefan on condition he converts to Muslim ways. Stefan however is strong willed, and it is the Princess who converts to Christianity so that she may marry Stefan. Ursus is re-united with his son but things do not end here, the Khan of the Tartars arrives and decides that the Princess should wed his son instead. Stefan and Ursus escape with Ursus’s son and the Princess and make their way to Poland. The Khan and his soldiers pursue them and there is a major battle in which the stories outcome is decided.
The musical score for the movie is by Italian Maestro Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, who composed numerous scores for the Peplum genre as well as writing extensively for Romantic tales, Westerns and Adventure films. Lavagnino wrote a rich and melodic score for URSUS AND THE TARTAR PRINCESS that is filled with dramatic and fast paced interludes, but it also has to it a warm and romantic sound, in which the composer employs lush strings and subdued but melodic and affecting woodwinds, that combine to create a wonderfully luxurious sound. The composer also utilises choral passages which inject and purvey an atmosphere that is filled with a distinctly religious mood. Lavagnino evokes the style of the Hollywood film score within this epic sounding work, recalling the styles of composers such as Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman with his majestic symphonic soundtrack. The composers clever use of brass and percussion is prominent for most of the work and it is this combination that creates the grandiose aura of the score.
THE OPENING TITLES, for example begin with brass flourishes that are underlined and pushed along by driving strings, interspersed by timpani and percussion the composer fashioning an urgent but at the same time regal sounding piece, the cue however soon slows and changes direction and style, Lavagnino creating a distinctive Eastern European flavour, via the use of balalaika and supporting this with strings, horns and gentle percussive sounds. The track MICHAEL ABDUCTED is a short-lived piece, but affecting, initially it is a quiet and low-key composition, but this alters as the action on screen also changes, the composer enlisting brass and percussion to create a more threatening and robust musical scenario. For a score that was originally recorded fifty-eight years ago the sound and style is remarkably good, Lavagnino utilises lilting tone poems alongside tense and dramatic pieces to generate a rich and vibrant work.
ANGELO FRANCESCO LAVAGNINO.
Born in Genoa Italy on February 22nd, 1909, Lavagnino, came from a musical family and was attracted to film music from an early age when he heard an orchestra accompany a silent movie. In many film music connoisseurs opinions Lavagnino was one of the Fathers of Italian film music, an innovator and a highly talented and original music-smith he graduated from the Giuseppe Verdi music conservatory in Milan, with a diploma in violin and composition and spent much of his early career working as a musician in orchestras that were performing in the concert halls and opera houses in Italy. Whilst doing this he also began to teach music and it was during this period that Lavagnino decided to start to compose music for film, his first foray into film scoring came in 1947 when he wrote the music for the comedy drama, NATALE AL CAMPO 119, which was directed by Pietro Francisci and starred Vittorio de Sica. As the 1950, s began Lavagnino started to become known within his native Italy as a composer of great talent producing music of high quality and also he was able to adapt to any genre or style of film. He also continued to teach music at this time and helped other composers come to grips with the technicalities of film scoring, one such composer was Francesco De Masi who he not only tutored but engaged as an assistant for a few years. The composers first major film scoring assignment came in 1951 when he provided the soundtrack for OTHELLO which was directed by Orson Welles, Lavagnino also scored the actor/directors FALSTAFF-CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT in 1965 and it was probably because of his first collaboration with Welles that the composer began to be offered assignments on bigger budget productions which included non-Italian movies such as Henry Hathaway’s action, drama, adventure LEGEND OF THE LOST, which starred John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Rossano Brazzi in 1957, the Italian/American co-production ESTHER AND THE KING for Director Raoul Walsh in 1960 and the British made monster movie, GORGO in 1961. Lavagnino seemed to excel when he wrote music for documentaries and won awards for his work in this area of film. At the Cannes film festival in 1955 he was nominated for the Palme d’Or for his music to CONTINENTE PERDUTO and won the special jury prize at the same festival for the score. In the same year he won the Silver ribbon award for his score to CONTINENTE PERDUTO which came from The Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. In 1956 his stunning score for L’IMPERO DEL SOLE (EMPIRE IN THE SUN) garnered him another nomination from the film journalists and in 1957 he was awarded the silver ribbon from the same organisation for his music to VERTIGINE BIANCA (WHITE VERTIGO).
Lavagnino was Sergio Leone’s first choice of composer when the filmmaker was in pre-production on A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, but the director was persuaded to engage a lesser known young composer named Ennio Morricone, because the film’s distributor felt that Morricone would be a better choice. One wonders if the music for the Italian western genre would have evolved in a different way or indeed would have been as successful as it was if Lavagnino had scored the first Leone western. I say this because although Lavagnino’s music was always highly original it was certainly more classical in its style and sound than Morricone’s and often leaned towards a more Americanized or conventional sound as in Dimitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner with some elements of what can now be deemed as being Spaghetti infused passages. After A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Lavagnino created numerous western scores and put his own unmistakable musical fingerprint upon them. In the latter part of 1964 and throughout 1965, Lavagnino composed the score for 5000 DOLLARI SULL’ASSO which was his first foray into the Euro-western Arena, in addition to this he penned the scores to, THE TRAMPLERS, L’UOMO DALLA PISTOLA D’ORO, THE MAN FROM CANYON CITY, OCASO DE UN PISTOLERO, SEVEN HOURS OF GUNFIRE, JOHNNY WEST IL MANCINO, SOLO CONTRO TUTTI and the comedy western I DUE SERGENTI DEL GENERALE CUSTER. He also provided music too at least another seven western movies over the next few years one of the last was, SAPEVANO SOLO UCCIDERE in 1971. Lavagnino scored over 300 movies during his illustrious career, which included, URSUS AND THE TARTAR PRINCESS, THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES, CONSPIRACY OF HEARTS, FIVE BRANDED WOMEN, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, THE LOST CONTINENT, THE NAKED MAJA, VENERE IMPERIALE, L’ULTIMO PARADISO and THE WIND CANNOT READ, and was responsible for creating some of cinemas most haunting and atmospheric soundtracks for Italian and international productions, his music supporting, enhancing, ingratiating and in certain cases almost caressing the movie or project he was involved with. The composer passed away in Gavi, Italy on August 21st, 1987.
j mansell (c)2019.